As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been writing for many years. Professionally, I’ve written hundreds if not thousands of blog posts, magazine articles, newsletters, white papers, product web pages, etc. and edited many more, plus a few books. And on the side, I’ve written fiction for seven years now. I have four complete manuscripts–all in the sci-fi, YA, and urban fantasy genres–that are in various stages of revising, editing, and querying. My dream is still to get traditionally published, preferably by one of the Big 6 publishers. It’s hard to keep pushing at it, for so many reasons:
- the demands of life, especially during pandemic distancing, would rather I didn’t take time to write. I mean, homeschooling while working from home full-time, plus taking care of the house, making sure everyone has enough to eat while trying to avoid grocery stories as much as possible, helping to cut masks, and checking on my neighbors, extended family members, and friends has been no joke. I wouldn’t trade it for anything because I’m so grateful we’re all relatively healthy and safe, but it has left little time and “brain juice” for creativity.
- I’ve put my current work-in-progress, whose working title is The End of the World and Other Such Farces, in front of a few agents, several beta readers, and my critique group several times (bless their hearts). The agents’ reactions were mixed, and my beta readers and critique group friends have said it’ll be really good with some significant changes. It takes a lot of mental gymnastics to change 2/3rds of a book. Just sayin’.
- My three other books have been revised 4-7 times each and queried to agents a combined ~140 times. While a few agents were very enthusiastic about a couple of them, and requested fulls, nothing’s come of those. I still believe that each of the stories need to be told, that if I can just re-write them the right way, in the right frame of mind, some readers will love them. I just need to dig in and revise them again. More mental gymnastics.
Thus, I’ve made it my business to study the craft of writing, because there’s writing for fun and then there’s writing because it’s my Big Dream and I really want to overcome the problems that’ve kept me from getting published, and just get really good at writing compelling stories. Here are nine writing books that’ve really helped me so far, with tidbits about what I consider most valuable in each book, and book deals for each of them. If you’re a writer of any sort, consider checking them out. If you’re not, tell your writer friends about them. They’ll thank you!
A Writer’s Guide to Persistence by Jordan Rosenfeld
I first told you about this book back in 2018; it’s wisdom still applies today, maybe even more so amidst this pandemic:
If you get any of these books, I recommend that you get them new in paperback form, as opposed to audiobook or even Kindle format. I underlined a ton and wrote all over the margins of my copy of A Writer’s Guide to Persistence, things like “Do this” or “Such-and-such manuscript would really benefit from this.” The paperback of this is $5.66 on Amazon.
One of the things that Jordan said that most helped me, in addition to the quote above, was:
“In my years as a radio host and columnist for Writer’s Digest magazine, every published author I interviewed revealed they had a writing partner, a writing critique group, or an editor they worked closely with. They did not rely solely on their own eyes to catch what wasn’t working. Because they sought feedback, these authors also revised their work based on others’ input. Some of them did many, many revisions. I firmly believe that real writing–real craft and certainly polish–happens in the revision. And often revision is more fruitful and effective if it is based, at least in part, on the feedback of others.”
Hooked by Les Edgerton
These days, most writers know that their first pages have got to really sing in order to have any chance of getting noticed by an agent (or bought enough times, if self-published). Thus, it can be tempting to start a book with high action or huge drama. But that’s not necessarily the best way. In Hooked, Edgerton explores the real intricacies and art of the best ways to write first pages.
That was very helpful. Even more helpful than that, though, was how it distinguished “story-worthy problems” from “surface problems,” and then showed how that distinction–if clear in the writer’s mind–can not only make first pages sing but also connect those problems with character motives that drive good plots. When you read someone else’s published book, it seems like it starts where it obviously should, but I promise you there’s an art to it, and Hooked helps break it down.
I searched six different book deals sites and the best deal I found for you on this book was $13.99 at Barnes & Noble (it is the same price on Amazon), as compared to the $17+ it was everywhere else.
First 50 Pages by Jeff Gerke
This book is similar to Hooked, except that it focuses more on what NOT to do in the first 50 pages. Some of these things I knew not to do; some were eye-openers to me:
You can get a gently used copy (I know I said it’s best to get a new copy, but this is such a good deal that I think this is a better way to go for this one) for $4.50 on Biblio.com, and if you use this link you get Free Shipping for the U.S.on Millions of Books.
Scene and Structure by Jack Bickham
This is an invaluable, in-depth guide to proactive and reactive scenes. In my view, this book should be in every single writer’s collection.
The best price on this book can be found on Biblio.com for $10.38 with free shipping.
Writing Fiction for Dummies by Randy Ingermanson and Peter Economy
It’s possible some people will think I’ve gone all basic or random by recommending this book, but I found it really useful, especially when I first got really serious about writing books because it
- showed me where to start, which can sometimes be difficult to figure out
- really covered a wide variety of helpful topics, such as dealing with distractions, plotting using various plot models and “layers,” editing and polishing characters, etc., etc.
Plus, this book’s what really got me honing in on conflict and how big a part it is of any good story.
The best price on this one can be found on ThriftBooks, again used, but in “very good” condition, for $9.99.
Writer’s Market 2020
Disclaimer: The contents of this book have little to do with the craft of writing, per se, but are still so useful that I had to include them in this list. The first 100 pages or so are all about how to write great queries, blog well, and develop an effective author brand, which are all very important skills for a writer to have as well, arguably almost as important as writing skills.
Then there are 200 pages of deep-dive information about agents you can query, 90+ pages on available writing contests and awards, a professional organizations glossary, and a book publishers subject index. Even if you’ve already consulted writersdigest.com for writing advice, this book (as big as it is) is a must-have.
This book can be tricky to get, and even trickier to get it for a good price. Trust me when I say that Amazon’s the best place to get this one, at $21.49 for a new paperback (although it is $16.49 for the Kindle version). Everywhere else, it was $26+, if they had it in stock.
Paper Hearts: Some Writing Advice and Paper Hearts Workbook, both by Beth Revis
While this book does spend plenty of time instructing about the “traditional” elements of writing craft–story structure, characters, etc.–it also delves into what writers should do if they run into a variety of obstacles, like disagreeing with a critique partner, making dialogue sound more realistic, or adjusting your book if it sounds too similar to something already published. It also talks about the inevitability of failure. In very short “chapters,” Beth Revis, who is one of my favorite YA sci-fi authors, shares nuggets of wisdom that can truly help writers in any genre.
I highly recommend getting her Paper Hearts Workbook too. Despite its title, which makes you think it’s an accompaniment to the Writing Advice book, it isn’t really. It has exercises to help you develop your distinct voice, find the beating heart of your story, and identify why you’re the best person to write the story you want to write.
The Kindle version of the Writing Advice book is $1.99 right now, as compared to $17.99 for the paperback, so, once again, I have to go back on my recommendation because that price is so good. You can get a paperback version for as low as $5.98 with free shipping from BetterWorldBooks.com, though. The workbook is $9.99 on Amazon.
Save the Cat! Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody
I talked about the popular screenwriting book this book is based off of here. This take on it isn’t just an adjustment of the 15 “beats” Save the Cat is famous for to book-length projects; it’s a definition-expanding honing of those beats within specific genres. And those genres aren’t the ones you tend to think of, like mystery or sci-fi. They’re types of stories, like “whydunits” and “dude with a problem” types. StCWaN explores the beats in-depth within each of ten possible story types.
It also expands greatly on the Finale beat, which wasn’t explained in great length in the original screenwriting book, but which needs so much more explanation because this beat usually takes up a large portion of the climax of any book.
The best price for a new paperback version of Save the Cat! Writes a Novel is $11.75 on Amazon.
So there you go! Will mastering all of the techniques taught in these books guarantee that you get published? Probably not. They haven’t yet for me. Will they help you, if you’re a writer with a Big Dream like mine, get further along on your writing journey, maybe expand your view of the path? You betcha.